What is Compressed Air?

Phil Shepley

Air that is held inside one of several types of special containers at a decreased volume is known as compressed air. For the air to be compressed, its pressure inside the container must be at a higher pressure than that of the atmospheric air outside of it. It can be contained in many different forms while having many different uses, many within the various industries that exist today. Compressed air can be used to power machines, pneumatic tools, engines, and more, including power drills, liquid sprayers, machine presses, vehicle engines, and many others. Another important use for compressed air is in the tanks of scuba divers, which must be safe, clean and reliable.

Compressed air is used for some power tools, including air wrenches.
Compressed air is used for some power tools, including air wrenches.

Among the simplest ways that air can be taken from the atmosphere and compressed within a smaller volume is through the use of a hand pump. To see how a hand pump works, look no further than a simple bicycle pump, which takes air and pumps it into a bike tire when a person repeatedly pushes a hand or foot pedal. When the pedal is compressed, air enters the pump through an intake and is “pushed” into the bike tire via a plunger within the pump casing. Once the air has entered the tire, it officially has become compressed air, and the more air that enters the tire results in higher air pressure within the volume of the tire.

A bicycle pump can be used to compress air inside a tire.
A bicycle pump can be used to compress air inside a tire.

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Obviously, if the air pressure of a bike tire becomes too high, the tire will eventually pop. This is why it is a bad idea to fill a bike tire with a mechanical air compressor, which has the capability of pushing much higher volumes of air into a tire, can, or tank at much faster speeds. Mechanical compressors can run on several principles by using pistons, rotary screws or centrifuges. They are used to fill vehicle tires, of course, but are also used to reload the compressed air tanks and cylinders that will be used for their various purposes.

A common type of compressed air tank is a simple spray can with a release trigger, which can be used to clean hard-to-reach dusty areas such as the inside of a computer. The airflow of larger tanks that operate machinery is typically controlled by the machines themselves, and many times the tanks or cylinders that hold the compressed air have been designed to work with only one specific machine. Most types of machinery, however, utilize a generic hookup that can be attached to a standard air tank for power as the compressed air is released.

Compressed air is a popular form of power because it is clean, easy to use, and easy to transport. It is also safe because air is not highly explosive in the same way that an energy source like gasoline can be. It is also readily available, since the air already surrounds us and needs only to be compressed in order to be ready to use.

Scuba divers draw from tanks that hold compressed air.
Scuba divers draw from tanks that hold compressed air.

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